Attracted by the abundance of fish and game, the spectacular vistas and the proximity of Yellowstone National Park, Col. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody arrived in the Big Horn Basin in 1895 and cobbled together his own western town.
A military scout, pony express rider, buffalo hunter, showman and entrepreneur who earned and spent fortunes, Cody embodied the spirit of the West for millions. His spirit of accomplishment and hospitality still thrives today in Cody, Wyoming.
It’s one of those packed-full-of-things-to-do destinations. At nearly every turn, the town of 9,000 people celebrates its favorite son.
One of the most visible tributes is the Irma Hotel. Named for Cody’s youngest daughter, it’s a Victorian-style hotel built in 1902. It boasts an expansive dining room with a priceless cherry wood bar that was a gift from Queen Victoria.
Look for the “Cody Gunfighters” performing out front each evening. Garbed in Old West attire local actors bring characters such as Wild Bill Hickock, Doc Holliday and the saloon girl, Miss La-dee-da, to life.
After a pleasing dinner at the Rib and Chop House, my wife Jane and I stroll across Sheridan Avenue to catch the Dan Miller Cowboy Music Review at the venerable Cody Theatre.
Miller and a pair of sidekicks uncork lively bluegrass, zany jokes, and plenty of cowboy poetry and music. Gems like the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Ghost Riders in the Sky” are sparked by superb harmonies that pay homage to the cowboy way of life.
Up early the next day we’re river rafting on the Shoshone River that sweeps us along thanks to an exceptional late spring snowmelt. The trip retraces the tracks of early Cody pioneers and the Plains Indian culture. Floating through two tall red rock bluffs we are treated to a red-tail hawk and raven dive- bombing each other overhead. Wet and wild, our 13-mile trip ends with ear-to-ear grins plastered on our faces.
Later in the day we’re headed 22 miles east of Cody to the McCullough Peaks wild horse range. Roughly 200 wild mustangs roam this rugged and mysterious 110,000-acre refuge. The horses’ intense colors are accompanied by dramatic and primitive markings.
The wild horses date back to the Spanish conquistadors who brought them to the New World in the 16th century. There are also descendents of the horses that Buffalo Bill used in his Wild West Show.
Ken Martin takes groups out to see the mustangs. He knows them all-- the dominant stallions, their favorite mares and the precocious colts.
The Bureau of Land Management is planning another round-up culling as many as 130 horses this fall. It’s a politically charged battle between the ranchers who want land for their enormous cattle herds and those who love the wild horses.
“For most people the mustang tour is the highlight of their vacation,” related Martin, who runs the Red Canyon Wild Mustang Tour. “The wild horses hoof sparks are all over the West. If they go, so goes a big piece of America.”
Back at our home base, The Cody Hotel, we relax on our second floor deck soaking in views of the rodeo grounds and the Rattlesnake Mountain. It’s a green friendly hotel in its construction and as well as its operation.
We decide on Cassie’s for dinner. The steakhouse has been the place to dine and dance since madam Cassie Waters opened it in 1922. With a stuffed mountain lion snarling over the bar, Cassie's is a slice of an old Zane Grey novel. The sprawling dance floor is the place to kick up your boot heels.
Next up is the Cody Nite Rodeo. For over 60 years, every summer night folks gather for barrel racing, team roping, bareback riding, tie-down roping, junior steer riding, and of course, the show-stopper-- bull riding.
During our Sunday evening visit we are wowed by a spunky four-year with blonde hair spilling out under her white cowboy hat as she skims aound three barrels on her dun-colored pony. She high-tails it to the finish punctuated by the cross-action whip of her reins. Amazingly, her time was just 12 seconds over the top adult’s time.
We spend the next morning at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. We could have spent days exploring all the spectacular exhibits. You’ll find five museums under one roof including an internationally acclaimed collection of Western Art and Americana, a rich collection of Plain Indian art and artifacts, exhibits on the Greater Yellowstone region’s ecosystem, the world’s largest collection of American firearms, and an American West section focused on the life and times of Buffalo Bill Cody.
That afternoon we stop at the Buffallo Bill Dam. Completed in 1910, it was designed as the tallest dam in the world and was the prototype for the legendary Hoover Dam. The dam turned the virtual desert of the northern Big Horn Basin into one of Wyoming's most fertile farming regions.
Now we’re cruising a stretch of the Buffalo Bill Scenic Byway through the Wapiti Valley. It follows the Northfork of the Shoshone River that dazzles with views of green valleys and alpine peaks. A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt dubbed the road between Cody and Yellowstone Park as “the most scenic 52 miles in America.”
Six miles from Yellowstone Park, we pull through the front gates of the Crossed Sabres Ranch. Established in 1898 initially as a stage-stop, it became the first dude ranch in Wyoming and the west. It sits in the heart of the Shoshone National Forest with the Absaroka and Washakie wilderness as nearby neighbors.
With the waters running super-fast, fly-fishing was shelved. Instead, each day we ride on different treks into the Shoshone National Forest. We’ll top out at 8,000 feet.
I’m aboard Thunder, a mature and sure-footed Quarter horse who marches along through the glacier carved valley. I gaze out at a crest of the Rockies that spills into a meadow dotted with a carpet of wildflowers. You wonder why you would ever want to go home.